Craig Fairbrass has long established himself as a hardman amongst hardmen, stealing scene after scene with his bristling intensity. Muscle, the third film from Gerard Johnson, is the best realisation yet of Fairbrass’s imposing screen presence, in what is an ominously powerful character study of manipulation and psychopathy.
Our focaliser is Simon (Cavan Clerkin), a disillusioned office worker whose cold-calling sales job is slowly killing him. He cuts a sorry figure, draped in a loose jacket as he shuffles along the alleys of Newcastle, his balding head held low. His wife and home offer no sanctuary, either. It’s a sexless marriage of excess drinking, long silences and snide remarks.
Shortly before attending some awful sales seminar, Simon is stopped in his tracks by a broad-shouldered man leaving a city centre gym. He makes a strong impression on him, triggering some remaining impetus – “I don’t feel the same anymore, I want to shake it up a bit, I want to change myself”, he explains to a colleague.
His first session at the gym is an awkward one, moving limply from machine to machine, including the pull-down, which he pulls behind his neck rather than towards his sternum – a cardinal sin to many lifters. Terry (Craig Fairbrass) makes this clear, bounding over to him with an aggressive tirade. This is followed, however, by a welcoming gesture, albeit one designed to coerce Simon into accepting his personal training service – “Fuck fit, you wanna get big and you wanna get strong.”
This manipulative combination of fear and positive reinforcement is a harbinger of what’s to come. When Simon’s wife leaves him, he goes to Terry for support, lamenting how he can’t afford the bills by himself. Terry sees an opportunity and asks to become his lodger, which he achieves with little resistance.
With this encroachment complete, Terry’s controlling behaviour confirms him as an abject psychopath. He pushes boundaries, inviting people to the house without permission and throwing parties that devolve into grimy spectacles of drugs and escorts. Eventually, Terry has a live-in girlfriend, taking over the living room as Simon stews upstairs.
Although Terry is clearly a bully and a second-rate human being, the full extent of his past is as unclear to us as it is to Simon. There is no dramatic irony here, just frightening mystery. Terry claims to have been a soldier, mentioning a collection of ‘trophy pictures’ that would ‘get him a life sentence’. However, later in the film, there are comments suggesting that Terry is much worse than anyone could imagine. Perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is that Terry is a nomadic psychopath, with Simon his latest victim in a life of roving crime and exploitation.
The depth of the script is matched by the stark, monochrome and occasionally experimental aesthetic. This style reaches its peak during an orgy scene that sees the frame warp and blur as Simon observes the violation of his home, with Matt Johnson’s evocative score casting an aura of gloom, menace and sin in equal measure.
Muscle is Gerard Johnson’s third film in 11 years. It’s also his best. One can only hope that his next project comes sooner rather than later, for Johnson has proved himself as a director of real force, intelligence, and explicit reality.
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